Wednesday, 25 January 2017

My peace I leave with you

The Uniting Church in Australia is preparing to farewell its lead national justice advocate Rev. Elenie Poulos.

After 15 years as National Director of UnitingJustice Australia, Elenie has accepted a scholarship to complete her PhD at Macquarie University.

Her research on the intersection of politics, religion, and human rights will be informed by a body of work that’s spanned the full range of justice and human rights issues.

From climate change to nuclear disarmament, justice for indigenous Australians, principles of economic justice, discrimination on grounds of race, religion or sexuality – Elenie has written the Uniting Church’s policies and submissions and been the face and voice of the Church’s public advocacy.

The single issue that has dominated Elenie’s work for the last two decades has been the Uniting Church’s response to refugees and asylum seekers.

Rev. Elenie Poulos began her placement at UnitingJustice Australia in January 2002 only months after the Tampa Incident triggered the long downward spiral in Australian refugee policy.

“There is no question about the Christian response to asylum seekers. The church is called to be a place of welcome.”

These words written by Elenie for an NCCA resource in 2004 are both timeless and sobering.

The resource goes on to lament Australian Government arrangements for offshore detention with Nauru and Manus Island in PNG – and is a sad foreshadowing of the human and spiritual toll wrought by Australia’s cruelty to asylum seekers that continues to the present day.

In 2017 Elenie still finds room for optimism.

“I’m enormously heartened by the increasing numbers of Uniting Church members who are engaged in the justice work of the Church.”

“Courageous people, young and old, are standing up across the breadth of our Church to speak up in support of our Christian principles, especially on refugees and asylum seekers and the environment.”

“Of course it’s disappointing that we’re not in a better space, but it’s always been enormously rewarding for me to work with people who are so passionate in their pursuit of justice,” says Elenie.

Working with President of the Australian Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs and former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda are named as career highlights.

Hand –in-hand with the justice work has been a lot of ecumenical heavy-lifting.

Elenie served as Chair of Act for Peace from 2009-13 and was the Founding Chair of the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce from 2012-3.

Now in her second seven-year term as a member of the World Council of Churches’ Commission of the Churches on International Affairs, Elenie describes the solidarity she’s enjoyed in these ecumenical forums as ‘life-giving’.

“We are stronger and better when we work together across denominations, and take on board the diversity of others’ experiences,” says Elenie.

Another highlight was a roundtable in Geneva between former UN High Commissioner for Refugees (now Secretary General) Antonio Guterres and representatives of faith-based organisations. 

Tributes to Elenie’s work are already flowing from across the Church and beyond.

“It is difficult to contemplate the justice work of the Uniting Church without Elenie Poulos,” says Assembly General Secretary Colleen Geyer.

“Elenie has been our voice of compassion and courage in the public square, a prophetic and distinctively Uniting Church voice speaking the truth to power through some of the most contested public debates.”

“Throughout Elenie’s deep love and commitment to the Uniting Church, our principles, history and values have been unwavering.”

Widely admired too are Elenie’s diligence and attention to detail. The readability of many a Uniting Church document has been rescued by her sub-editing skills and her eye for design, honed in her pre-Ministry career in book publishing.

As an early adopter of technology, Elenie’s Twitter following still outranks official Uniting Church accounts.

Elenie’s policy legacy is extensive and tidy too. Last year’s Shelter from the Storm brought up to date the Church’s policy positions on refugees and asylum seekers. An Economy of Life, the Church’s statement on globalisation, the economy and environment, has become the foundational statement for the Church’s ongoing work in economic justice.

Elenie is hopeful for the future too.

“Young leaders in the UCA at NYALC, NCYC and elsewhere are really holding justice in the centre of their faith.” 

“Even within the complexity of so many public policy issues, I see them upholding the simple truth that as Christians we are called to do justice and to love kindness. It shouldn’t be complicated.  

“Our justice networks and supporters – and I hope all councils of the UCA - will continue to loudly and proudly speak up for the vulnerable and disadvantaged and stand against all unjust and harmful policies.”

“As a Church, as Christians, as brothers and sisters in humanity we can’t be silent when people and the planet are suffering.

“I undertook this ministry standing in the long and proud tradition of the UCA’s commitment to justice. It’s in our DNA. So there is no reason for any member of the Church to hesitate. If there is an issue you’re passionate about, don't wait for others to do something, get involved – wherever and however it makes sense for you! This is who we’re meant to be.”

Rev. Elenie Poulos’ Closure of Ministry Service will be held at Pitt Street Uniting Church in Sydney at 4pm on 17 February.

If you are attending please assist event organisers by registering by 6 February.